'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' explores a fascinating friendship

At their best, movies suggest rather than smother, consider instead of overwhelm. The best films create conversations when moviemakers ask questions that we, as an audience, get to ponder. As moviegoers, we experience the magic of the medium when we can bring our own thoughts and histories to the situations the cameras reveal.

Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” may not appeal to people who prefer movies that fill in all the details. This look at how a relationship evolves over time between two women trapped in 18th-century convention avoids any temptation to scatter the screen with facts. Instead the movie suggests interactions that may occur between these ladies while asking us, as we observe, to connect these incidents into a cohesive narrative. By encouraging us to wonder why these women pursue this friendship, Sciamma insists that we invest in the outcome. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” welcomes us to a magical world filled with interesting women who impress with their intense need for connection.

We know what we’re likely to experience from the opening moments. Rather than settle for a conventional set up of the backstory, Sciamma suggests the conditions that initially bring an artist, Marianna, to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse, the daughter of a countess. But we aren’t totally confident, from the start, in the authenticity of any of their motives. Why is the countess determined to secure this portrait of her daughter? Why is her daughter reluctant to be captured on canvass? And why is this artist, at a time when few female painters can secure steady work, so casual about the details of this assignment? Because Sciamma avoids using her screen time to fill in the details, the director frees herself to take the movie to surprising places while relying on us to figure out what it all means.

This movie works, beautifully, because Sciamma never cheats her characters no matter how she may resist detailing their layers. Marianna emerges as a serious, determined woman who has learned how to hide her vulnerabilities, while Héloïse celebrates self-absorption while slowly making herself emotionally available. As the women continue to imagine how their curiosities may ultimately connect, we get to experience the journey that people can take to realize they need others. How Marianna and Héloïse share their opportunities to care enables us, in the audience, a chance to frame our views of what makes a satisfying relationship.

Much like Alfred Hitchcock accomplished with his Oscar-winning Rebecca in 1940, or Ken Russell did with Women in Love 30 years later, Sciamma suggests who these women may be without insisting on how they must progress. By letting the women, their needs, and their fears naturally evolve, without letting the camera artificially force the outcome, the director creates a film that thrills our visual senses while relying on our emotional curiosity to connect the dots. How satisfying, for an audience in the theater, to become a part of what a moviemaker imagines rather than only being a recipient of the ideas. This film thrills.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is rated R for “some nudity and sexuality.” The film runs 2 hours, 1 minute, with subtitles. It opens in New York City on Dec. 6.

Film Nutritional Value: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Content: High. Moviemaker Céline Sciamma creates a beautifully-visualized look at the intense relationship between two 18th-century women.

Entertainment: High. Even with its use of suggestion rather than overt detail, and its subtitles, the film offers an accessible look at two fascinating ladies.

Message: High. This meaningful film reminds us that connections that endure require an emotional truth that some people resist.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to enjoy a master movie maker's command of the camera can be thrilling.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film, talk with your older children about the different ways characters handle guilt in the film, and what it teaches them about how people confront their own truth.